How "near-peer" adversaries are changing command posts and battlefield network requirements

5Future battles may be fought against so-called "near-peer" adversaries who may already be ahead of America's best technologies. It's time to adopt the latest consumer technologies in the command post by making the post more mobile or by making it virtual, like unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) pilots who operate far from the front lines. That strategy requires that an entire tent worth of analysts, radio operators, and personnel - plus their generators, SATCOM [satellite communications] gear, and miscellaneous hardware - be shrunk down to something that fits in the back of a Humvee, an MRAP [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected] vehicle, or a Stryker armored vehicle.

America’s military doctrine since World War II has been to decisively defeat the enemy with overwhelming force in both manpower, materiel, and Department of Defense (DoD) budget. Along with this objective came the understanding that the U.S. military could successfully prosecute two wars simultaneously, and that warfighters would be equipped with the world’s best and most sophisticated technology. So equipped, the U.S. was unstoppable.

Until it wasn’t. Recent skirmishes with Russia and China have shown that both of these nations’ forces are equally well-equipped with the latest technologies – and the will to use them when needed. Far from the ill-equipped Iraqi army and asymmetric urban warfare in Afghanistan, future battles may be against so-called ­“near-peer” adversaries who may already be ahead of America’s best technologies.

These threats require new battlefield technologies and doctrines as quickly as the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines can field them. The threat to our battlefield ­networks is one area where “near-peer” is acutely visible.

From Russia, with love

When Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, U.S. observers were shocked to discover that Russia was quickly able to find, defeat, and kill Ukraine’s installed command and control (C2) structure. Not only was Russia able to triangulate and locate Crimea’s battlefield communications networks and defensive weaponry with pinpoint accuracy, Russian jamming and eventual precision artillery successfully rendered those technologies moot (and neutralized). The lesson was that if you can find it, you can kill it. Recent examples in Syria are similar.

The U.S. had long assumed that Russia was not this well-equipped. DoD strategists and planners remember the not-so-long ago early 1980s, when it was publicly leaked that Russian aircraft still relied on vacuum tubes for critical on-board systems. It was later learned that this was as much about trailing-edge technology as it was for radiation mitigation (semiconductors are exceptionally vulnerable to electromagnetic pulse alpha particles compared to vacuum tubes). In 2014, if Russia could electronically jam, defeat, and kill technology used by quasi-allies such as the Ukraine, then U.S. forces themselves might someday be equally vulnerable. America took notice.

The battlefield changes but some things stay the same

Our Army commands battle much as one sees in World War II movies: A forward command post is set up, RF and tactical communications extend forward to the front lines and rearward to supply depots or the continental U.S. (CONUS). Joint links are set up with naval and Air Force airborne assets, although direct communication is rare – requiring intermediaries to relay instructions or transpose disparate tactical radio and data links. Standoff and relatively nimble airborne platforms such as AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System, the E-2C Hawkeye, E-8 JSTARS [Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System], and the RC-135 V/W Rivet Joint coordinate, interrogate, and conduct surveillance but the Army must still set up tents, air conditioning, generator trucks, server racks, and big satellite communications gear. And a whole lot of personnel to operate it. When the U.S. was assured of battlefield and technology dominance, this made perfect sense.

This ground doctrine relies on the capable Warfighter’s Information Network (WIN-T) tactical LAN between assets, and the command post architecture of Tactical Server Infrastructure (TSI). While these core technologies get the job done, hours or even days are required every time a command post (CP) is established or torn down. Once up and running, they radiate RF and EM emissions, making them visible and vulnerable to the enemy’s sensors and weapons.

The need for shoot and scoot

Army planners are now looking for a way to mimic this tactical command post concept, but have it set up, operating, and torn down in as little as 30 minutes. The idea is that as the Army drives forward, an entire tent’s worth of analysts, radio operators, and personnel – plus their generators, SATCOM gear, and miscellaneous – can be shrunk down to something that fits in the back of a Humvee, an MRAP, a Stryker, or perhaps something as big as an 8 by 8 truck.

Another possibility is that the command post is not all in one spot; perhaps it’s disaggregated and distributed and made redundant across multiple platforms but networked together in real time with shared databases and joint intelligence provided from all battlefield and joint sensors. Maybe some of the equipment is mounted in autonomous vehicles, remotely controlled, but “expendable” should the enemy locate and send a precision shell or missile into the EM radiation source (Figure 1). Although unfortunate, killing a truck’s worth of gear rather than personnel is an obvious benefit when the truck is robotic. This is why the Air Force relies nearly as much on UAVs as on fighter aircraft these days. Real pilots still fly those UAVs; they’re just out of harm’s way and rely on battlefield networks to control their unmanned aerial system.

Figure 1: U.S. Army concept of future autonomous vehicle demonstrator. Could this be the command post of the future? (Courtesy U.S. Army.)

Back on the ground, this networked, distributed, mobile, agile “shoot and scoot” strategy is not foreign to the Army. It is already practiced with mobile artillery that can set up, lob 155 mm smart munitions, then quickly move to a new location before the enemy can triangulate a reverse trajectory from the incoming shells. It’s time to adopt this same strategy to the command post by making it either more mobile – or making it virtual, just like pilots who may operate far from the front lines.

Core technologies for future battlefield networks and CPs

The Army has two obvious choices for future battlefield command posts and their associated networks: One, make them lighter, smaller, integrated into other systems or disaggregated out to other existing systems; or two, ­virtualize them such that the same functions are handled remotely, possibly in a secure and essentially far from the battlefield.

Regardless of which approach is used, higher-bandwidth networks will be required if massive amounts of data need to be moved from points A to B – even if A and B are localized on the battlefield as opposed to A in battle and B in CONUS. While SATCOM and mesh network research continues at a fever pace, the state of the art in networking remains the civilian terrestrial mobile networks. Migration to 5G cellular technology, MIMO antennas, and femto cells (repeaters) is driven by the world’s voracious appetite for sharing content – primarily pictures and streaming movies. It’s unlikely DARPA, NASA, or the DoD can outspend or out-innovate commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) civilian mobile technology. The best hope for battlefield networks is to adopt COTS and harden it.

On the other hand, more efficient use of existing defense networks and server infrastructure is one way to free up bandwidth to change the rigid CP doctrine to something new. Localized compression can free up congested networks. For electro-optical sensors that blast out full-motion video, technology already used by Amazon, Google, Netflix, and other content providers realizes massive compression benefits while still maintaining high-def and soon ultra-high-def (4K) content.

Using MPEG-4 or newer H.265 (HEVC) compression on existing networks will free bandwidth, allowing portable, mobile, or even virtual CP access far from the front lines (Figure 2). The current 7th-generation Intel Core i7 Kaby Lake CPU has native H.265 CODECs built in. Small-form-factor systems consume as little as 35 watts (min) and can accept direct sensor input and output highly video-over-IP to LAN ports.

Figure 2: Modern video CODECs like H.265 have double the compression of the previous generation H.264. Implemented in video-centric mobile phones running ARM-based CPUs, half of the bit-rate throughput is required. This doubles available channel bandwidth or halves the amount of CPU cycles required to stream video. (Courtesy ARM).

Rackmount servers and their associated disk farms – a mainstay in tactical command post tents – have already been shrunk from 19-inch racks to shoebox-sized conduction-cooled chassis. The Army’s Multi-Function Video Display (MVD) program out of the U.S. Army’s Product Manager Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle Systems (PdM MRAP VS) mounts an Intel Xeon server with disk storage and inside a Type II MRAP vehicle equipped with myriad EO/IR [electro-optic/infrared] sensors (Figure 3). It’s not too far a stretch to imagine more boxes like these replacing a tentful of 19-inch racks or transit cases.

Figure 3: The GMS S402-NV server (upper right) eliminates a rackmounted server in a Type II MRAP. Used in the Army’s Multi-Function Video display program shown here, the small-form-factor server processes and distributes sensor video data as IP packets over a LAN. (Courtesy U.S. Army PdM MRAP VS and Night Vision Labs NVESD.)

Even the existing and already space-optimized WIN-T Increment 2 is being further reduced. The new Tactical Communications Nodte-Lite (TCN-Lite) migrates portions of the at-the-halt CP to an on-the-move convoy. It’s mounted in Humvees and integrates both the terrestrial SATCOM of the stationary CP and line-of-sight connectivity (Figure 4).

Figure 4: A CH-47 sling loads a Humvee equipped with WIN-T. GD Mission Systems’ TCN-Lite version further reduces the larger, stationary portions of WIN-T to mobile platforms. (Courtesy General Dynamics Mission Systems; U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Bradford Alex.)

Real threat, real progress, right now

With Russia and China actively pursuing more aggressive world policies and equipped with technology perhaps on par with U.S. systems, the race is on to change how America fights wars. The stationary Army command post is ripe for innovation, from a rapid “shoot and scoot” quick setup and tear down, to integrating the command-post function into separate battlefield systems, all the way to virtualizing it and moving it far away in a cloud-like architecture.

Technologies such as the latest COTS , civilian 5G mobile networks, conduction-cooled small-form-factor systems, and deployed battlefield servers already exist and are ready to provide the Army and joint services with the new, progressive paradigm that’s needed right now.

Chris A. Ciufo is chief technology officer and VP of product marketing at , Inc. Ciufo is a veteran of the semiconductor, COTS, and defense industries, where he has held engineering, marketing, and executive-level positions. He has published more than 100 technology-related . He holds a bachelor’s degree in EE/materials science and participates in defense industry organizations and consortia.

General Micro Systems